PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Drenched in sweat and more than an hour into a speech urging 16,000 garment factory workers to vote for the ruling party, Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia revived the restless crowd by announcing that everyone would receive a cash gift.
“Nephews and nieces, it is just a little,” he said as the audience cheered and applauded. “You each get 20,000 riels ($5) as a gift. For nieces who are pregnant, you each get an extra envelope.”
Cambodians go to the polls on July 29 and Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than 30 years, is trying to ensure victory after two close elections in 2013 and 2017 with cash inducements and a series of punishing measures against the opposition.
In doing so, according to critics, he has delivered a hammer blow to Cambodia’s status as a liberal democracy, which is enshrined in the country’s constitution forged by a United Nations peace deal in 1991.
Kem Sokha, the leader of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was arrested in September for allegedly treasonous remarks in a speech made four years earlier.
Two months later, the CNRP was dissolved and almost 5,000 of its elected officials replaced by members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
Meanwhile, civil liberties and freedom of speech have been quashed as independent media outlets close and critics and journalists are detained.
Huy Vannak, under secretary of state at the Interior Ministry, defended the cash payments at rallies, saying “it’s government money”. A CPP spokesman, Sok Eysan, however, said the party did not hand out money. Hun Sen’s cabinet chief, Ho Sothy, could not be reached for comment.
Sophal Ear, a Cambodia analyst at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said Hun Sen, spooked by recent election setbacks, has “stacked the deck” to ensure victory.
“He determined that the only way forward would be to retain power by any means necessary,” Sophal Ear said in emailed comments. “He is setting the stage for whatever may happen next but with him and his family in control, always.”
At the rally, Hun Sen told the crowd he gave out cash gifts at all such events. While the gifts Reuters saw being handed out were mostly modest, the largesse in total would be considerable if all the 540,000 garment workers Hun Sen says he has addressed since last year received some cash.
The opposition does not typically hand out cash at rallies, according to political analysts and opposition members.
However, the National Election Committee, which is supposed to be independent, has supported Hun Sen’s practices.
“As the head of the royal government, he has the right to organize things in society,” said Hang Puthea, a spokesman for the committee, when asked about the cash handouts.
The CPP has also provided cash payments to members who make renewed pledges of allegiance to the party, according to a Voice of America report and copies of party documents seen by Reuters.
Almost 2 million of 5.3 million registered CPP members didn’t vote in the national election of 2013.
The CPP spokesman, Sok Eysan, said the low turnout was because many party members worked abroad.
The close calls for the CPP in the 2013 national election and local elections in 2017, in which the CNRP received more than 40 percent of the vote, reflected two fundamental shifts in Cambodian society, said Caroline Hughes, an analyst at the University of Notre Dame.
The first is the spread of the internet and social media; the second, a bulging youth demographic with no memory of the genocide and civil war that convulsed Cambodia for more than two decades. The younger generation is driven by economic concerns, she said.
“They don’t work on the family farm like their parents. They work in factories - either in Phnom Penh or maybe Thailand or South Korea,” Hughes said. “This is a generation that is saying ‘what have you done for us’.”
Many factory workers joined mass protests after the 2013 election amid claims of voting irregularities.
At the recent Hun Sen rally, outside a factory on the outskirts of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, Hun Sen addressed a crowd of mainly young and female workers. As they sat in tents emblazoned with slogans of the CPP, Hun Sen’s message was that they had never had it so good.
The minimum wage for factory workers and civil servants had more than doubled since the last election, he said, the dividend of the CPP securing peace and stability.
Don’t believe those who say the election is flawed, he said. There are 20 parties registered to compete, he added.
“It’s good to hear what he has to say, to know what’s happening with wages,” said Khom Siem, a pregnant factory worker clutching an envelope which she said contained $200.
“Under Hun Sen, it’s better. We have more benefits than before.”
Other workers, who asked not to be identified, said variously that they had come for the money, a day off work and because their boss had ordered them to.
The CNRP has called for a boycott of the election, a step its exiled leader, Sam Rainsy, says will allow his supporters to cast judgment on Hun Sen’s legitimacy.
Hang, the National Election Committee member, said calls for a boycott were illegal, even though voting is not compulsory.
“It is legal if you call for people to vote,” Hang said. But “if you encourage them not to vote, it violates other people’s rights.”
Reflecting nervousness about discussing the boycott call, eight workers interviewed by Reuters at Hun Sen’s rally all declined to comment.
“I could say but I would get into trouble,” said one worker.
Korn Savang, co-ordinator at the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said the interpretation of the country’s election laws were “politically motivated” and favored the government.
Calling for a boycott was an “expression of opinion”, not obstructing citizens’ voting rights, he said.
Kung Raiya, a 27-year-old activist, is one of the rare voices of open dissent in Cambodia. He spent 18 months in prison for criticizing the government and said he shared a four by four meter cell with 30 other inmates.
“I would like to hold a banner that says people have the right not to vote,” he said. “But my supporters said don’t do it, you might be arrested. But it’s legal. And I will do it.”
The first Cambodian imprisoned for anti-government comments on social media, Kung said there were now fewer critical posts about the regime on Facebook, the most popular platform.
“The quantity has declined,” he said. “People will write in a lighter way. Also, they don’t want to share or comment on them. Fear is rising after a lot of arrests.”
In March, another activist, Sem Sokha, was sentenced to two years in prison for posting a video of herself throwing a shoe at a CPP billboard featuring Hun Sen’s image.
Last week, citing concerns about “instability”, Cambodia’s government said it would deploy staff from three ministries to monitor and control content on the internet.
Huy Vannak, the Interior Ministry official, said media companies had been closed because they had broken the law.
The crackdown was required to stop chaos, he said.
“It’s not important that you say everything, but you choose what is best to say.”
Reporting by Tom Allard; Editing by Philip McClellan